On July 21, 1821, John Quincy Adams, who would go on to become the sixth president of the United States, warned that if America were ever to abandon its founding principle of non-interventionism in foreign affairs, she might well become the “dictatress of the world.”
Adams issued his warning in a speech he delivered to Congress, a speech that has gone down in history with the title “In Search of Monsters to Destroy.”
Adams was referring to the fact that the United States was founded as a constitutional republic, one whose military forces did not go around the world helping people who were suffering the horrors of dictators, despots, civil wars, revolutions, famines, oppression, or anything else. That’s not to say that America didn’t sympathize with people struggling to experience lives of freedom, peace, and prosperity. It was simply that the U.S. government would not go abroad to slay such monsters.
Here is how Adams expressed it:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
Adams was summing up the founding foreign policy of the United States, a policy of non-interventionism in the affairs of other nations, specifically Europe and Asia.
And that’s the way the American people wanted it. If Americans had been told after the Constitutional Convention that the U.S. government would be intervening around the world, there is no way that they would have ever approved the Constitution.
In fact, as a practical matter, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there is no way that U.S. officials could have gone abroad in search of monsters to destroy. That’s because a nation needs a powerful military to go abroad and free people from dictators and despots or save people from famines or other bad things that happen in life.
When the Constitution called the federal government into existence, the last thing the American people wanted was a powerful military. They were overwhelmingly opposed to what they called “standing armies,” which was a term used describe a big, permanent military establishment. That was why there was Pentagon, no big, permanent military-industrial complex, no CIA, and no NSA for more than 100 years after the country was established. The American people didn’t want those types of governmental apparatuses to be part of our nation’s political system.
The reason Americans were so opposed to standing armies is because they believed that standing armies constituted a grave threat to their freedom and economic well-being. They knew, from both first-hand experience and through history, that dictators and despots used powerful military establishments to destroy the freedom and prosperity of the citizenry, oftentimes in the name of keeping them safe, secure, and prosperous.
So, while there was a basic military force throughout the 19th century — large enough to suppress Native Americans or even to defeat a neighboring Third World nation like Mexico in the Mexican War, it certainly was nowhere near as large enough to cross the oceans and invade and conquer European or Asian countries. The one big exception, of course, was the Civil War, but the army immediately demobilized upon the conclusion of the war.
Things started changing with the Spanish American War in 1898. There were those who argued that America could not be a great nation without owning overseas colonies, like the British and French Empires. Opposed to that sentiment was the mindset that had guided the founding of the country: that empire and foreign interventionism would end up destroying the country from within.
The interventionists prevailed. First, U.S. officials misled and double-crossed the colonies of the Spanish Empire by leading them to believe that the United States was intervening against Spain to help the colonies win their independence. It was a lie. As the colonies soon learned, the real aim was to step into the shoes of the Spanish Empire by acquiring its colonies. That’s how the United States ended with Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba.
Second, the trend toward empire as a way to make America great was followed by foreign interventionism, with World War I and World War II being premier examples.
That was followed by the conversion of the U.S. government from a constitutional republic to what is known as a “national-security state,” a governmental apparatus characterized by a massive, permanent standing military establishment and secretive agencies with the power to assassinate and spy on the citizenry, in the name of preserving “national security.”
That was followed by massive interventions “in search of monsters to destroy” through assassinations, coups, invasions, occupations, support of dictatorships, and regime change: Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Congo, Brazil, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and others.
Here is how Adams eloquently expressed what would happen to America if she were ever to abandon our nation’s founding principles of anti-empire and non-interventionism:
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
No one can seriously deny that Adams has been proven correct — that America — or, more correctly, the U.S. government — has become the dictatress of the world — issuing orders and commands to people and regimes all over the world and backing them up with coups, assassinations, sanctions, embargoes, invasions, and occupations, and all headed today by a democratically elected president who has all the traditional traits of an old-fashioned dictator or despot.
This article was originally published at the Future of Freedom Foundation.